Paper in Fire

chapter 9.

It was dark in the culvert, but as it hadn't rained since he'd arrived in Porter, at least it was dry. Ed moved slowly, thankful that the moon had not yet risen. Close behind him Sherriff Brown's Junior Deputy, Randall, was doing his best to move silently. Ed wished he'd noticed the man following him sooner. He should have expected it after all. Randall appeared to be suffering from a bad case of hero worship — however misplaced — and had been determined to assist the young alchemist with everything possible, to the point of actually being in the way. Now, as they approached to within about 20 meters of the isolated farm house where they hoped to find the Autoclave Alchemist, Edward wondered if there was some way he could get the man to allow him to enter the structure alone.

Peeking up over the edge of the culvert, Ed noticed a single light in a window on the upper floor of the two story house. It wasn't very late — around 10 pm — but he couldn't afford to delay paying a visit to the former State Alchemist, the lack of solid evidence be damned. Not if what he suspected was true.

Edward has met the woman two days ago. In her fifties, she had been living in Porter, under an assumed name it turned out, for over ten years. She had shown up in town right around the time that the Ishbalan Rebellion was at its peak. The woman had established herself as an alchemist for hire, often bartering her skills when times were hard, and was a well respected member of the community. The local kids liked to come to visit her, because she made time to mend their broken toys, and always had fresh baked cookies ready for them. She'd offered some to Edward when he'd visited the isolated farm house she called home two days ago with an innocent smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, but the aroma of all the fresh baked cookies in the world couldn't cover the tang of high energy alchemy Ed tasted in the air around her. What had caused her to turn to chimera research was a mystery to Ed. Of course, why anyone would want to dabble in that field was beyond him. He also suspected that she had decided to use her baking skills to lure some unsuspecting kid into one of her arrays. Sherriff Brown, Deputy Karl, and a good many of Porters residents were currently out searching for a missing eight year old boy. Ed was just about to try to persuade Randall to stay in the culvert while he approached the house, when he saw movement and a dim flash of reflected light out of the corner of his eye.

It was on them in a split second, and Ed just managed to bash its head aside with his right forearm as it lunged. His automail clanged off their attacker's skull, jolting all the way up to his shoulder. What the fuck?

Wasting no more time, the outer forearm plate was quickly transmuted into a short blade. Forget stealth now. Randall had let loose a shriek in the initial attack as he scrambled away. It was nearly pitch black in the culvert, but Edward could see where the creature was, a roughly man—sized darker shadow crouched against the lighter gray of the trench's wall.

"Randall! Make a run for it!" Ed shouted, just as the creature lunged again. "Go call for backup!"

Ed slashed at the thickest part of the shadow, and connected, but once again his steel limb clanged, and the blade slid aside without penetrating. The alchemist dodged backward and lashed out with his left foot, connecting with a dull clank. The creature was right in his face — he could feel its hot breath — and he felt something tear through his jacket to rake across his ribs.


Ed clapped again and slapped his flesh hand on to the trench wall behind him. Blue—white tendrils of energy played over the spike of stone that shot out, and the creature yelped as it was slammed back into the opposite wall. The boy clapped once more and pressed his hands to the ground. The stone wall morphed to enfold the creature and hold it more securely.

Panting, Edward prodded at his injured ribs, noticing that Randall was gone. He quickly scrambled out of the culvert and crossed to the house at a dead run, skidding to a stop on the porch. Clasping his hands together to let the energy build, the alchemist then slammed both hands into the door, causing it to explode inward in a hail of wooden spikes, but instead of rushing inside, the teen dodged to the side, clapping again.

Another misshapen shadow sprang through the opening, and this time Ed was ready. Crashing his hands to the porch floor, he caught this chimera in a large wooden hand. The creature shrieked in ear splitting rage and thrashed in the tight wooden grip, but was unable to free itself.

Now wishing that the moon had risen so he might see what the hell was inside the house, Ed cautiously edged around the opening he had created for a peek inside. No movement. He eased through the doorway and into the house.

The light suddenly came on, blinding him. Without a moment's thought, the young man threw himself as far to the left as he could, and felt a damp heat slip past him. Squinting, he made out an archway and dodged through it, into what appeared to be a dining room.

"Your reflexes are quite impressive, boy." The woman's melodic voice reached him over the pounding of his heart. "I think experience will prove to hold the greater advantage though."

Ed took a chance and bobbed his head out into the foyer to locate his opponent, and barely managed to keep from being blasted by a high speed jet of steam by ducking immediately back. He'd caught a glimpse of her though — on the stairway, near the top, white gloved hands together with the fingers pointed in his direction, the white plume seeming to appear from between them. The Autoclave Alchemist's talent was her ability to manipulate the molecules of water vapor present in the air using complimentary arrays on the palms of her gloves. By causing the molecules to vibrate very quickly, she could create jets of superheated steam, and direct them with great accuracy.

"You'll find me a much more intelligent opponent than my pets I think, though I am working on improving their cognitive abilities." The woman said.

"By including something more intelligent in the mix?" Ed guessed.

"Hmm, yes. I'm getting rather good at this. That first pitiful creature you captured was one of my earlier attempts, the first to survive the transmutation. Given its low intellectual level, I was quite surprised at its escape. I'm having a much better success rate now, and the results are most impressive. After tonight I suppose I'll have to relocate though. Pity."

Why did these assholes always feel the need to talk shit in the middle of a fight? Ed scanned the dimly lit room for other exits, finding none. He could transmute another door, or he could try a transmutation blind. He knew her general position. If he could use the carpet on the stairs to immobilize her . . . was it getting hot in there?

"It's nice when the weather is this humid," he could hear the older woman sigh. "I appreciate the warmth so much more as I get older. And the extra moisture in the air makes it easier for me to keep the house heated in the evening when it gets cool."

The air in the dining room was definitely getting hotter. Mist was gathering on the floor and curling around Ed's legs.

"Of course it takes me a bit longer to heat large volumes of air, but given a little time I can build up quite an impressive temperature."

Ed didn't know if she was bluffing, but he decided that he wasn't going to wait around to find out. He clapped and launched himself from his refuge far into the foyer. Like Mustang, the Autoclave Alchemist's most effective strategy was quick, long range attacks and the older woman was waiting. Her jet of hot vapor missed Ed by inches as two shots rang out from outside the house, distracting her. Ed transmuted a barrage of wooden spikes at the woman as he presented a moving target across the foyer. She pressed her palms together again, and another high speed jet of steam blasted out from between them, directly at Edward.

The young man clapped and sprang forward, flat to the floor, in an attempt to dodge the blast. He felt a searing pain across the left side of his face, neck and back as he pressed his palms down to the hardwood. The blast of scorching hot vapor abruptly stopped as the stairway beneath his attacker's feet suddenly folded up like an accordion, dropping her heavily from the second floor out of sight into another stairwell below the first. Ed charged, automail blade at the ready. As he leaped onto the gap he saw her. Sitting on the steps looking up, teeth bared, right leg strangely twisted, she was bringing her hands together again. Ed lunged to grab her right and slam it backward into the steps as he drove his flesh knee into her gut. The older woman's breath whooshed out and she doubled over.

Only his sharp reflexes saved him from the short blade that sliced up towards his throat. He managed to twist out of the way, still pinning the gasping woman's right hand so she couldn't roast him alive, using his automail blade to parry the next thrust. Then he noticed her eyes flick upward over his shoulder for a split second, and in a moment of pure panic, he threw himself backward down the stairs.

Getting his first look at one of these things in the light, Edward found that it was nothing like the first chimera he had tracked down in Porter. That one had been an imperfect blend of dog and lizard, awkward and in constant pain. This sleek creature was all metallic fangs and claws, with asymmetrical spikes protruding from along its back and tail, as well as from around its neck like some weird dog collar. In mid leap, the chimera couldn't stop its attack. Flexing around to track Ed, it landed off balance directly on top its master, two spikes thrusting deep into her chest.

"You little bastard. You killed me."

Ed didn't stick around to find out if the woman could do more than talk. He scrambled to his feet from the cold damp stone of the cellar floor and put some distance between himself, the chimera, and his victim. A door stood ajar to his right and he sprinted through it, slamming it behind him before clapping his hands once more. He didn't have time to do anything else as the door exploded off its hinges and the chimera bowled him over. One of the creature's spikes pressed into his right shoulder, between the flesh and metal. Another penetrated his right forearm between the transmuted blade and the wrist flange. Its fangs bared inches from Ed's face, the teen slapped his left hand onto its forehead and loosed the cycling energy into its head. Ed couldn't have said who screamed louder, the chimera as its head exploded, or him.

The alchemist lay there panting for a few moments, then struggled to roll the creature's limp body off him. Sitting up, he took in his surroundings.

This was obviously the Autoclave Alchemist's lab. A large room that occupied over half of the upper structure's base, it was ringed with a few large work tables and a number of cages, some occupied, some not. Most notable however was the large transmutation circle in the middle of the floor. At its centre lay a large iguana, an even larger Golden retriever, and a small child, each arranged in one of three linked rings.

Ed looked around and finally spotted the expected bucket of water and wet sponge nearby. He unceremoniously sluiced the bucket over the neatly drawn chalk lines, washing away a wide slice to break the circle, not wanting to chance accidentally activating the array. Then he stepped inside to check on the child. As expected, the little boy was simply unconscious. Ed took a few moments to drag the two also unconscious animals to unoccupied cages and shut them in, leaving the boy where he was. Then, cautiously approaching the doorway, he peeked out toward the stairs, ready to dodge back into the lab if necessary.

"She's dead," said Randall, crouched beside the woman, shotgun over one shoulder.

Edward sat on the examining table, waiting for Porter's town doctor to come in and stitch him up. His injuries weren't severe for the most part — his clothing had protected him from more serious burns — but they were painful, and worse, his automail arm was malfunctioning. The cause was probably a combination of the spike that had penetrated his shoulder, and the one that had slipped into the inner workings of the limb through the flange. He had to be careful how he held it; the metal limb tended to send sharp sparks of pain into his shoulder if he rotated his wrist or put any pressure on his forearm. Some of the wiring had to be crossed up in there. Man, Winry was going to kill him. At least she wasn't prone to throwing wrenches anymore.

The door opened, but it wasn't the doctor that came in. It was an annoyed Sherriff.

"What the hell did you think you were doing, running off to confront a desperate criminal like that?" Maxine growled. "You put not only yourself, but my deputy in danger."

"Everyone was out looking for the missing kid when I got the call from Central Headquarters confirming the woman's identity, and I didn't know Randall was following me. I did tell him to go for back up though," Ed said apologetically.

"Yeah, he told me. So he went back to his car and got his shotgun." The woman smirked. "Said he didn't think his sidearm packed enough punch. You suspected that she was responsible for the boy's disappearance, didn't you." It wasn't a question.

"I wasn't sure, and even if I had been, I didn't want a bunch of civilians getting caught in the crossfire." Ed carefully pressed the cool palm of his automail hand over the burn on his face. "She was a former State Alchemist, combat trained. She disappeared while posted in Ishbal during the Rebellion. She could have taken out an angry mob of townsfolk without raising a sweat, just like she was trained to."

The doctor chose that moment to reenter the examining room, preventing Maxine's response.

"Alright Major Elric, let's close up those lacerations shall we?" the older man chirped happily. "Can't have you bleeding all over the train on your way back to East City now, can we?"

"When you leaving?" Maxine asked casually.

"As far as I know, the next train to Central is early tomorrow morning," Ed kept his eyes on the red head, and off what the doctor was doing.

"Great!" The Sherriff grinned. "That means I'll have a chance to treat you to dinner before you go. I owe you one, after all."

"Discretion is definitely not your middle name," Ed flinched slightly as the doctor began to suture his wounds.

"Discretion? Why would I want to be discrete about stepping out with a sexy blond half my age?" Maxine snorted. "Hell, half the town is patting me on the back, and the other half is jealous."

"Too right," muttered the doctor.